Report: No ‘strong evidence’ to show top colleges disfavor Asian American applicants

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • According to a new review from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, there is a lack of solid evidence to support that highly selective colleges discriminate against Asian American applicants.
  • Affirmative action opponents say the stable enrollment of Asian Americans at some of these schools over the past two decades suggests officials are unlawfully engaging in racial balancing on their campuses.
  • But the report’s researchers found the percentage of Asian American and Pacific Islander students attending the nation’s most selective colleges is in line with their growing share of the four-year college-going population.

Dive Insight:

The new report attempts to publicly dismantle arguments from an anti-affirmative group that has fought race-conscious admissions at several universities, including a case against Harvard University that could reach the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Students for Fair Admissions, or SFFA, sued Harvard in 2014, arguing that it discriminates against Asian American applicants.

It lost the case against Harvard in late 2019, when a federal judge ruled that the university’s use of race in admissions was “necessary and narrowly tailored” to maintain a diverse student body. An appeals court later upheld the ruling.


The U.S. Supreme Court is now weighing whether to review the case. Affirmative action supporters are worried that the justices, the majority of which have been appointed by Republican presidents, will strike down Harvard’s policies — a move that would have far-reaching consequences for colleges and universities that consider race in admissions. The group has similar lawsuits pending against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Texas at Austin, and Yale University.

Georgetown CEW’s report takes aim at several of SFFA’s arguments, including that the stable share of Asian American enrollment over 10 years at highly selective colleges, including Harvard, shows deliberate systemwide discrimination. The researchers point out that the number of Asian American students with SAT scores above 1350 has also been stable.

SFFA has noted that Asian American students tend to have a lower acceptance rate at the three most selective Ivy League schools than other racial or ethnic groups — a pattern that the group says amounts to intentional discrimination. But Asian American students with scores below 1300 on the SAT are also more likely than other groups to apply to these schools, the Georgetown CEW report’s authors found.

“As a result of their disproportionately high rates of application, the lower rates of acceptance for Asian American students are not necessarily evidence of discrimination,” they wrote.  The anti-affirmative group has argued that Asian American students need higher test scores than White students to gain admission to Harvard.

Georgetown CEW’s researchers found that Asian Americans’ share of enrollment at the nation’s most selective colleges would rise two percentage points, from 12% to 14%, if only test scores were taken into account during admissions.

They also argued that holistic admissions benefit some Asian American students. According to their simulation, one in five students in this group attending a highly selective college would not have been admitted under a test-only policy.

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